Mumbai is now fighting for visibility in basketball amid competition

Dec 03, 2017, 11:12 IST | Anju Maskeri

It's a Thursday evening, and the Bachchu Bhai Khan Playground in Nagpada is teeming with teenage boys playing basketball under the watchful eye of their coach

It's a Thursday evening, and the Bachchu Bhai Khan Playground in Nagpada is teeming with teenage boys playing basketball under the watchful eye of their coach. Among them is 15-year-old Shlok Lakhwani who, at 6 feet 5 inches, is hard to miss in a sea of people. A few months ago, the Billabong High School student was spotted by Ashok Anjara, India's only FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) certified licensed basketball agent, for his athletic frame. "My job is essentially that of Jerry McGuire, where I scout for talent, sign players and then help them seek contracts with professional clubs," he says.

Players gather at the Bachchu Bhai Khan Playground in Nagpada to practice basketball on a Thursday evening.  pic/BIPIN KOKATE
Players gather at the Bachchu Bhai Khan Playground in Nagpada to practice basketball on a Thursday evening.  Pic/BIPIN KOKATE

It's only been a week since Lakhwani started learning the game, but Anjara has faith. "Basketball is a tall man's game, and I believe skills are something that can be honed," says the 42-year-old, whose day job is with a mining company, but he moonlights as a sport agent for the love of the game. Anjara, who also rose up in the sport from Nagpada, says what probably will hinder Lakhwani's quick progress is that the many basketball tournaments that raised the competitive level of Mumbai's players have come to a halt. Take for instance the Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament at the Indian Gymkhana and the Savio Cup at the Don Bosco School, Matunga. Both were discontinued two years ago. Last year, YMCA stopped having tournaments at their Ghatkopar, Andheri and Chembur centres. An official from YMCA, on the condition of anonymity, says, "The problem is that we don't have an event calendar, so these matches tend to clash with the state and national tournaments. Earlier it was more organised, and we were aware of the timelines," he says.

Karan Madhok

Vinod Muthukumar, a committee member of the Indian Gymkhana, owes it to the lack of sponsorships. "We used to have the Ramu Memorial Cup at an all-India level. We haven't done that in the last two years, reason being we don't get enough sponsors to organise it. Getting sponsorship for a game like basketball is difficult because it's not mainstream," he says.

State sees drop in standard
While Anjara has Lakhwani's back, to help him chase the American dream, for those who don't, these tournaments with the visibility they provided were their ticket to a better future in the sport. Veterans today say that the basketball scene in Mumbai is now a pale shadow of its glorious past. "Till about 15 years ago, Maharashtra used to feature in the top five on the national level. It's no longer the case. Tournaments have dropped not just in the city but in the state and visibility of the sport has taken a hit," says sports journalist Mukund Dhus, who was also the general secretary of the Maharashtra State Basketball Association till 2005.

Abbas Moontasir, an Arjuna awardee
Abbas Moontasir, an Arjuna awardee

But, while some put it down to shortage of funds, veteran Indian hoopster Gulam Abbas Moontasir argues otherwise. Moontasir, a former India captain and an Arjuna awardee, who still spends his evenings watching youngsters play at the Nagpada Neighbourhood Association office near Nagpada police station, on 2nd Peer Khan Street, says, "Today, it's not very difficult to get sponsors for any sport, provided you're willing to go the extra mile in terms of effort. Look at kabaddi. This clearly means we aren't doing enough in terms of promoting our players," he says, adding that it'll be difficult for most to recall some top basketball players from the city. However, if you were to think of cricketers, the list wouldn't end.

The 75-year-old admits that basketball is not an easy game to play. While at its most basic level, there's one objective of putting the ball in the basket, it has many detailed nuances like dribbling, passing, shooting, transition offense, half-court sets and free throws that requires high fitness levels and mental strength. However, with two grounds in the area, the other being Mastan court, there's no dearth of children wanting to play the game. "The problem is that it's not translating on to a professional level," he says.

Change at grassroots
On the other hand, this year America's National Basketball Association (NBA) started its first academy in the country, a move that's being called a shot in the arm for basketball. Moreover, the launch of NBA camps by the Reliance Foundation Jr. Programme targeted at school-going kids wherein basketball is being integrated as part of their physical education curriculum, hopes to introduce basketball knowledge and the love for the sport at an early age. But, sports writer Karan Madhok, who has reported extensively on Indian basketball and the NBA for the last eight years, believes these programmes will have an impact only in the long term. The need of the hour is also to amend the current system. "Because there is no professional league organised by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the evolution of basketball is still moving at a slow rate. There is a lack of opportunity at the pro level," he says. Madhok believes that though students may do very well at the school and college level, there's not enough room for growth. "They show great potential to be future stars, but don't take basketball seriously enough because of other opportunities," he says.

Drop in recruitments
Basketball was until a while ago, an easy ticket into a government job. That, too, is slowing down, says Krishnan Muthukumar, the current secretary of the Maharashtra State Basketball Association (MSBA). Muthukumar says that the recruitment of basketball players in various government departments like the Income Tax, ONGC and Railways, Excise, used to be high till about a decade ago. While the Indian Railways continues to recruit players, the rest have put an end to the practice. This, believes Muthukumar, has come in the way of many aspiring players wanting to make a foray into the sport. "It's not just the case with basketball, but overall sports recruitments have dried out," he says. Even today, at the Nagpada basketball courts, it's common to have railways sports officials visiting the courts to gauge the capability of players and conducting tests, but not many are picked.

(Right) Manisha Dange, 39, from Thane was picked to play for the Central Railways at the age of 18
(Right) Manisha Dange, 39, from Thane was picked to play for the Central Railways at the age of 18

While many have made it to the Western and Central Railways teams in the past, the numbers have dropped in the case of Mumbai. Ravindra Bhakar, Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO) of Western Railway (WR), agrees. "Our objective is to provide employment to deserving players who have excelled at a national level. Not as many players from Maharashtra are making the cut. That's because of performance. We are going purely by merit," he says. Afsana Mansuri, 23, used to play in the girls' team of the Nagpada Basketball Association till 2011. The then-16 year old basketball lover had dreams of pursuing her passion and getting a job in the bargain. Even then, tournaments were less, and if the funds came by, the boys' teams were given priority. Soon, many girls dropped out, and the team dissolved. "In the end, everyone wanted a job, and to play, and none of that was happening. And we couldn't get better if we didn't play as much, so in the end there was no option but to leave. We all had families to look after," says Mansuri, who now works at Zara in Pune.

Manisha Dange from Thane, who led Maharashtra's U16 Girls squad at the Youth Nationals and was also the team's coach in 2011 when they went for the Nationals in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, says the run for medals has made the going difficult. "The Railways want players who have National medals and rank in the first three places," says the 39-year-old, who plays for Central Railway and now plans to apply for the Shiv Chhatrapati Award that's awarded to the best sportsperson in the country.

Dange feels there's immense potential that needs to be tapped into. Muthukumar concurs. After turning secretary in 2015, he has been trying to encourage more participation in the tournaments. A prize money of R20,000 to the winning team, he hopes will work as a good incentive. Others like Dhus are sceptical of these measures. "I think we need a change at the administrative level, people who know how to select the right people and train them accordingly. States like Tamil Nadu who have trumped the Under-13, Under-16 and the Under-18 this year, must be doing something right."

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